Farewell to Departments

Plymouth State plans to replace them with clusters. Restructuring and layoffs have professors scratching their heads.

June 21, 2016
President Donald Birx

Plymouth State University in New Hampshire announced an aggressive set of changes to its organizational structure Monday, scratching its current 24 undergraduate academic departments, three colleges and graduate studies program for an academic cluster model with seven interdisciplinary areas.

The depth of the changes surprised some at the university. So did a series of employee cuts and buyouts amounting to 10.6 percent of the university’s 734 employees. But many faculty members hesitated to fully endorse or renounce the clustering strategy, saying they need to see more detail about such a drastic change before they can make a final evaluation.

Yet even before the nuts and bolts are in place, it’s clear Plymouth State’s leaders are talking about a radical new university structure that few if any institutions have been willing to try on such a large scale.

Plymouth State’s 24 academic departments currently fall under the three colleges of arts and sciences, business administration, and education, health and human services. Its master’s and doctoral students study under a graduate studies program. The seven planned academic clusters are arts and technology; education, democracy and social change; exploration and discovery; health and human enrichment; innovation and entrepreneurship; justice and security; and tourism, environment and sustainable development.

Those new academic clusters are being cast as following an open laboratories model, opening up the university to partnerships with the local community and industry. Plymouth State said it will be focused on entrepreneurship while teaching graduates the ability to work together to solve problems.

The changes will be visible in the fall of 2017. In that semester, first-year students will take a seminar series designed to expose them to the different clusters. The university will still award traditional undergraduate and graduate degrees, but students will be able to earn certificates in specialty areas within clusters. The University System of New Hampshire's Board of Regents approved $10.6 million in funding to put them in place

However the changes also come with employee cuts -- 78 of the university’s 734 employees are leaving through retirements, voluntary separations or layoffs. A dozen faculty members are taking voluntary retirement packages, along with 42 staff members. Another nine staff members are taking voluntary separation packages, and 15 staff members are being laid off.

Some positions will be refilled. Yet 40-50 positions will not be filled.

Faculty members reacted with surprise to the employee cuts. Chris Chabot is a professor of biology who was part of an organizing committee that set up a chapter of the American Association of University Professors at Plymouth State this year. He emailed a statement saying he had not heard about layoffs.

“We, like the rest of the Plymouth State community, are only now hearing about the number of layoffs,” it said. “At this moment, we don't believe any of our bargaining unit members have been affected by the layoffs, but we are disheartened to hear that Plymouth will be losing 15 employees. The Plymouth State AAUP chapter hopes to collect more information in the coming days and looks forward to working with the administration, through collective bargaining, to strengthen PSU and to prevent future layoffs.”

Chabot declined further comment, saying it was too early in the reorganization process for him to feel comfortable answering questions. He had earlier told the New Hampshire Union Leader he worried about job losses but intended to learn more about the departmental changes.

“Whenever there’s a change, whether it’s driven from above or below, there has to be some readjustments,” Chabot said, according to the newspaper. “We have to figure out what those readjustments will be, and it’s just too early.”

The nature of the changes may not be a surprise to anyone who knows the background of Plymouth State President Donald Birx, who was hired to lead the institution last year. The president talked about interdisciplinary clusters when he interviewed for the job, he said. He had put clustering models in place in previous career stops -- as chancellor at Pennsylvania State University's Behrend College in Erie, as vice chancellor and vice president for research for the University of Houston System, and as interim vice provost and president for research at New Mexico State University.

Plymouth State’s planned seven clusters were picked in large part on institutional and regional strengths, Birx said. Faculty members were part of the process, he said. Faculty leaders, however, did not appear to know all the details behind the plans announced Monday.

“I came in talking about clusters,” Birx said. “That, I think, opened the idea a little bit broader than you might have if you came into an institution and you said, ‘Hey, this is an idea.’”

But the changes at Plymouth State go much deeper than those at his previous stops. It’s his first time remaking a whole university under the cluster model, with colleges disappearing while departments move into groupings around disciplinary strengths and communities, Birx said.

“A regular university is regularly based on a set of colleges and departments,” he said. “The heritage goes back years and years, and even if you do anything, you just layer them on top of what you’ve already got. This goes to the base of things and says, ‘What if we were to create a 21st-century university?’”

Making the changes across a university will allow for deeper benefits, Birx believes. One of those benefits is savings -- a goal is to ramp up cost savings over three years to the point where Plymouth State is saving $5 million per year.

The savings can come in part because different layers within the institution’s organizational structure can be eliminated, Birx said.

“There will still be deans,” Birx said. “But we’ll have less deans than we have today, and eventually we may not have deans as time goes on. The model that I’ve suggested has more of a provost-cluster-director type of organization.”

Yet Birx said the biggest goal of the reorganization is to increase retention. Another is to boost enrollment.

Plymouth State has experienced mixed data on enrollment and retention in recent years. Total undergraduate enrollment dropped from 3,986 in the fall of 2013 to 3,689 in the fall of 2014 before spiking to 4,105 in the fall of 2015, according to the university. First-year student enrollment was 930 in the fall of 2013, fell to 751 in the fall of 2014 and surged to 1,349 in the fall of 2015. The administration is projecting its fall 2016 class to be 1,247, which would make it the second-largest incoming class in university history -- behind 2015.

Meanwhile, the university’s first-year student retention rate was 74 percent in the fall of 2013, slipped to 72 percent a year later and rebounded to 77 percent in the fall of 2015.

Even against that backdrop, Birx is trying to set up the institution for the future, he said.

“The real issue here was if you looked outside of five years, with the changes that have gone on in higher education, with the demographics, with the discount rate going up, clearly there’s handwriting on the wall,” Birx said. “The reason we targeted a $5 million reduction is we thought that’s what we’re going to need to be competitive. This is really to get ahead of the wave.”

Savings will be invested in educational programs and financial aid, Birx said.

The president’s administration provided figures showing Plymouth State eked out a positive margin in 2014 and 2015 even though operating revenue fell considerably. Operating revenue was listed at $102.2 million in 2014 and $98.4 million in 2015, above expenses of $100.1 million in 2014 and $95.9 million in 2015.

The clustering plan stands out from other universities’ plans to change organizational structure because it is so drastic. Most other institutions try to layer interdisciplinary efforts on top of existing structures, said Robert Smith, vice president of Collaborative Brain Trust University Consulting.

“There’s a tendency to evolve these kinds of mechanisms on top of more traditional academic structures,” he said. “This is different than you’ll see in other institutions. Maybe it works out, but I think perhaps it is a little bit more risky -- perhaps a lot more risky -- than building such initiatives on top of other academic structures.”

The reorganization brings up several institutional questions, Smith said. Plymouth State will need to be in contact with accreditors to gauge any possible effects on its status -- both across the university and within individual programs with their own accreditation. Other questions to watch are whether the administration works closely with faculty representatives, whether it pays enough attention to faculty members’ certification and how it treats its established disciplinary learning structures as it revamps them.

Buy-in from university employees and faculty members will be key, Smith said. So will buy-in from alumni with their fund-raising dollars.

“Maybe they can work through all of this,” Smith said. “My experience suggests that it may not be an entirely easy sell to faculty.”

The university’s adjunct faculty may be more willing to try new things than others. Philip Inwood is a teaching lecturer of art history who is the president of SEIU Local 1984 Chapter 30, the union for Plymouth State adjunct faculty. The reorganization could be a good solution to the hierarchical university model, where adjuncts can feel excluded from a feudal system, he said.

But while he said the changes could be exciting, Inwood cautioned that it’s not clear how they will look on the ground once in place.

“This upheaval, to some extent, gives a sense that higher ed could be more responsive to innovation, new ideas,” he said. “I haven’t polled my members hardly, because nobody really knows what it has meant.”


Back to Top